Technology

Can we please just go back to using smaller wheels and tires?


A flat tire on a Hyundai Ioniq 5
Enlarge / Sigh. Not only are the 225/45/R20 tires easy to puncture, they’re not cheap. Smaller wheels would ride better and provide better efficiency.

Jonathan Gitlin

On Friday afternoon, I popped out of the house to run a quick errand. This week’s press fleet car is a Hyundai Ioniq 5, a boxy, angular, and efficient electric vehicle. I never quite made it to my intended destination, though; a very slightly misjudged corner—at low speed—saw me clip the curb with the back right wheel, resulting in a dime-sized hole in the sidewall and a frustrating couple of hours. Needless to say, there is no spare tire in an Ioniq 5, nor a can of get-you-home foam, not that it would have helped in this instance. But I can’t help thinking all that stress could have been avoided if the car used smaller wheels and higher profile tires.

Of all the current automotive trends, the ever-increasing size of wheels and tires may be my least favorite. If you’re middle-aged, you’ve probably been driving for a couple of decades now, during which time smaller wheel sizes have been disappearing even faster than the honey bees. Just try finding good 14-inch tires for an older Miata, for example. Or even 15s.

The increasing popularity of crossovers and SUVs is largely to blame, though not entirely. So, too, is the move to battery electric vehicles, which is ironic considering that increasing wheel size very clearly hurts efficiency and range, the two main considerations for many EV buyers.

Why are wheels and tires getting bigger?

A big reason wheels are getting bigger is due to a car’s proportions. Take the Ioniq 5, for example—it’s pretty much the same shape as a 1980s Lancia Delta, but overall it’s actually 20 percent larger. The Italian hatchback came with 16- or sometimes 17-inch wheels, and to maintain the same proportions, the Hyundai is fitted with either 19- or 20-inch wheels.

“I don’t think any designer, actually, naturally wants to do a tall car unless they’re doing a Bronco or Defender,” explained Julian Thompson, who was director of design at Jaguar until a couple of years ago, but perhaps best known for his design of the original Lotus Elise in the mid-90s (a design he just revisited for the Nyobolt EV).

“I think the dream with electric car designs initially because they put the components, anywhere you wanted. The reality is [the battery] is a big, heavy slab which needs to sit, for the handling of the car, centrally in the car, and you know, in between the wheels, and as low as possible, and it will add height to the car so that’s where we are at the moment,” Thompson told me.

Glaring examples of this trend are the Rolls-Royce Spectre, which rides on 23-inch wheels, or the just-revealed Cadillac Escalade IQ, which will use 24-inch wheels—formerly the preserve of the “donk.”

Max Missoni, head of design at Polestar, is another designer who thinks the trend is here to stay, at least for a while. “In the premium segment, I doubt [wheels will get smaller] unless it comes to projects like, let’s say, our Project Zero,” Missoni said, referring to the company’s plan to build a truly carbon-neutral car by 2030.

“But if you look at other segments, let’s say small compact microcars in China, for example, electric ones, they have tiny wheels. I don’t know if you’ve seen the Wuling and these kind of cars—it’s like 13-inch or something. So I think it really depends on the segment you’re looking at.

“But since we have quite big batteries, long ranges, obviously then [more] weight as a result of it. Then you need bigger brakes, then you need bigger discs, and then you end up with slightly big wheels. But the combination of having fairly aerodynamic flat wheels, but then being at that size—that’s a typical electrification thing we see now,” Missoni told Ars.